The Matile Manse sits right on the Fox River Trail about a half-mile north of its current southern terminus at Oswego’s Hudson Crossing Park. Every day the weather permits, hundreds—sometimes thousands—of pedestrians and cyclists pass by, and all of them seem to be having good times.
The family ramblers are a happy bunch, sometimes pushing strollers or holding hands. The runners, however, all seem to have somewhat pained looks on their faces. But the bicyclists seem the happiest. From family groups herding youngsters on gaily hued bikes to couples easing along on their cruisers to the high-tech folks on their sleek recumbents to the rare tandem, they all whiz by with smiles on their faces. Even the guys and girls with garish spandex duds and aerodynamic helmets seem to have a happy, though sometimes grimly determined look in their eyes and they speed past.
Bicycling has become an extremely popular leisure-time activity in the U.S. for all ages. According to the data I’ve seen, some 100 million Americans bike sometime during the year. And it’s not all just for fun, either. Nearly a million Americans commute to work by bike these days.
But like everything else, cycling had to start somewhere. And around these parts, it was in 1880. The “Oswego” column of the Sept. 16, 1880 Kendall County Record reported something completely different: “Clint Gaylord bicycled our streets Saturday; he came from home and returned in the same manner.”
The Gaylord farm was out on the Plainfield-Oswego Road, and Gaylord pedaled about five miles into Oswego on his new machine.
The whole cycling craze of the late 19th Century had its genesis with Frenchman Eugène Meyer, who perfected the tensioned wire spoke wheel in 1869. Then English inventor James Stanley perfected the familiar high-wheeled design that became known as the Ordinary. Here in the U.S., Civil War veteran Albert Pope started manufacturing Columbia high-wheelers in a factory just outside Boston in 1878. It was just two years later when Clint Gaylord pedaled into Oswego to see what he could see.
The high-wheeler was not easy to ride. Consisting of a giant front wheel some five feet in diameter and a tiny rear wheel, the operator had to push it in a running start, and then nimbly climb aboard the seat using two pegs on the frame just above the small rear wheel to reach the pedals, which were attached to a crankshaft that formed the hub of the front wheel. No coaster brakes on these bad boys; you just had to keep pedaling or you’d fall over.
From the start, the things were formally called bicycles, but were most often called wheels, and their operators were dubbed wheelmen. Given the acrobatics needed to climb aboard one, and the long, heavy dresses of the day, women riders were vanishingly rare.
By 1884, bicycling was becoming ever more popular. In July of that year, Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that: “Thomas Stevens, the man from San Francisco on his way around the world on a bicycle, passed through here the other day. Another bicyclist, namely Harry West of Wichita, Kansas (son of Wm. West, formerly of this place) is here on a visit at his uncle’s, W.H. McConnell. He works the bicycle very easily and gracefully.”
By the summer of 1887, Rank could report that “Oswego has now several quite expert bicyclists.”
One of those experts was Oswego native and Aurora business owner Joe Sierp. Sierp spent a lot of time with Oswego friends, so his love of cycling fit right in with his lifestyle, which included joining the Aurora Bicycle Club. “Nine bicyclists of Aurora came to town one evening; they were joined by Joe Sierp on his wheel and an extensive and imposing ride was enjoyed in our streets,” Rank wrote in the summer of 1888.
Within a decade or so, cycling had become a national craze, which led, oddly enough, to pressure for more and better roads in the nation and Illinois. Before his first campaign for mayor of Chicago in 1897, Carter Harrison got the public’s attention by joining a bicycle club, all of whose members had ridden their high-wheelers the then respectable distance of 100 miles in one day. For his first “century,” Harrison cycled from his home on Chicago’s west side through Wheeling, Waukegan, and Libertyville, and then home. The trip took him nine and a half hours of frantic pedaling on his wheel. That led to the demand of a number of influential people for better roads so they could pedal their bikes faster and farther. At about this same time, the same people were buying horseless carriages and wanted roads on which to drive them.
But that was in the future. While the wheelmen enjoyed their status as men among men, women who wanted to pedal their own bicycles were out of luck until the perfection of the safety bicycle in the 1880s. British engineer Harry Lawson designed the first safety in 1876, featuring two wheels of equal diameter—thus making it lots safer to ride than the ordinary (and thus its name). But it was propelled with a clumsy treadle system that limited its usefulness. But then in 1879, Lawson perfected the design by using pedals on a crankshaft with a sprocket that turned a chain that powered the rear wheel. It would be nearly a decade before the safety made it across the Atlantic to the U.S.
Men, however, still loved their wheels, despite how difficult they were to operate. In the summer of 1893, the Record reported from Oswego that “The road race of the Aurora cyclists Wednesday was attended with some accidents near here. One met a tumble right below town by which he lost a portion of his skin, and another broke down his wheel just after having crossed the bridge. The hurt cyclist was taken home by J.H. Reed in his buggy.”
Bicycling was not only a leisure activity, but had increasing business uses as well. In the autumn of 1897, the Record reported from Yorkville that “We may have telephone connection with the surrounding towns before long, and Yorkville placed in hearing of the big city of Chicago. Mr. E.G. Drew, special agent of the Chicago Telephone Company, and Mrs. O.J. Holbrook, right-of-way agent for the same, were in Yorkville Friday last in the interest of the company, looking up the opportunities for a line here and to Plano, Lisbon, Plattville, and way stations. The gentlemen were traveling on wheels and looked as though they had passed through the great desert of Sahara and acquired all the dust there was in the locality.”
So common were high-wheelers that one of them was involved in one of Kendall County’s earliest road rage incidents. In October 1898, Chris Henne was driving his horse and wagon home to his farm from Oswego after having enjoyed the hospitality of one or more of the village’s saloons. Driving his rig erratically west on modern U.S. Route 34, he first ran the driver of the local ice delivery wagon off the road, and then did the same thing to a wheelman who was eastbound to Oswego. Unfortunately for Henne, the wheelman was armed. He climbed back aboard his wheel, caught up with Henne, and shot and killed the farmer as he sped past. The vengeful wheelman was never caught.
Century rides and county fair high-wheel races became common entertainments during the 1890s. But after their U.S. introduction in 1887, those safety bikes were slowly making inroads, mostly because women could use them right alongside their male friends. In the June 3, 1891 Record, Rank noted that “Coming down the road by Squires [modern U.S. Route 34] to this place and returning on the west side of the river is a much-frequented route of the Aurorians for a pleasure drive on Sundays. On the last, a party of four each of ladies and gentlemen on bicycles came also over that route. Ladies will have to get a new costume for that purpose in order to look graceful on bicycles.”
And there Rank made an observation of some portent. While women were anxious to enjoy the freedom of cycling, they were constrained not only by the social conventions of the time, but also by the fashion dictates of the era. Long, heavy skirts, corsets, and voluminous undergarments all conspired against cycling, even on the user-friendly safeties. But the urge to glide off on their bikes to the freedom of the open road was so strong that it soon led to major changes in everything from women’s wardrobes to social rules of how single men and women interacted away from the confines of chaperones.
The changes were so profound that Susan B. Anthony remarked to investigative journalist Nelly Bly in an 1896 interview: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
Locally, women’s strong attraction to bicycling was chronicled in the local press, and that included the controversy over female cyclists’ new use of loose pantaloons called bloomers. Bloomers had been a hallmark of the original women’s rights agitators in the 1850s, but quickly fell out of fashion. But by the 1890s, there was not only an ideological reason to wear them, but a practical one, too.
In June 1895, the Record’s Bristol correspondent remarked: “While lying in my hammock today two ladies rode by on bicycles, dressed in bloomers (the first I have seen), and I thought why this hue and cry against that style of dress. I cannot see anything improper about them….If riding a bicycle is healthy for woman and the dress skirt is in the way, that surely is the best costume.” And, in fact, bloomers quickly became a signature of the growing women’s rights movement—thus Anthony’s remark to Nelly Bly.
For his part, Rank couldn’t figure out what the bloomer hubbub was all about, commenting in August 1895: “According to those newspaper fellows that are commenting on bloomers, it would appear that all what makes women pretty is their dress. Don’t mind those fellows.”
A month later, in a comment with surprisingly modern overtones, he was still contending it was silly to judge people by the way they dressed.
“The ‘new woman’ is for independence; she will require the man to make himself attractive and that not merely by his clothes; she is for being no more anxious of getting left than the man shall be. In short, she is for the enjoyment of equal privileges. Again, beauty, grace, taste, and style are to a great extent mere notions, cultivated conceptions. Old style costumes look ridiculous now, but they were pretty and tasty when in fashion,” he suggested, adding a political note referring to the looming Spanish-American War, “That bloomers were downed 30 years ago is no reason why they should not succeed now. Many good things fail in their first effort; the Cubans have been defeated heretofore in several revolts, but that is no reason that they should not succeed now.”
As a way to make a practical statement of freedom, it was hard to beat a woman’s bicycle. They were relatively inexpensive and were easy to care for. It wasn’t long before they became not just pleasure vehicles but also work transportation.
Searching for a way to describe this newfangled trend, Rank commented in March 1895: “Edith Edwards has become a bicyclestrain.”
Adding in September of that year that “Misses Cora and Ella Willis, engaged in Aurora, were seen several times in town on their bicycles.” A year after that, he noted that biking to work by at least one of the community’s one-room schoolteachers was the latest thing, “Anna Robinson commenced to teach the school in the Wormley district last Monday and got herself a bicycle for journeying to and from it.”
Throughout the balance of the 19th Century, well into the first decades of the 20th Century, women’s use of bicycles for transportation to work and as a leisure activity continued to grow until that was supplanted by the automobile craze.
But bicycling never entirely went away. Always popular among youngsters—I still fondly remember my first bike, a used blue Schwinn I bought from Bob Bower for $5—bicycling is booming again as people look for the freedom of coasting along on their bikes. And today, millions upon millions of women in the United States regularly bike, thanks, in part, to a leisure craze that turned out to be a route to women’s social and political freedom.